Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Death of Satan

On April 8, 1966, Time's cover declared that God was dead. Bill Hamilton explained the phrase he coined for popular culture, "The death of God is a metaphor. We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God."

 It is interesting to note that Hamilton came to this conclusion after years of wrestling with the concept of God. When he was a teenager his friends had been building pipe bombs. The two Christian friends died. And the third, the son of an atheist, emerged without a scratch. How, Hamilton wondered, could a just God allow this? Why do the innocent suffer? Does God intervene in human lives?

 "Theodicy came to dwell in my 14-year-old head that Sunday," he says.

 Hamilton wrote out his two choices: "God is not behind such radical evil, therefore he cannot be what we have traditionally meant by God" or "God is behind everything, including the death camps — and therefore he is a killer."

 Hamilton didn't see an active God anymore. But the theologian was not an atheist. And he didn't want to let go of Jesus, as the example of how humans should treat one another.

 Now 40 years later, Andrew Delbanco puts a spin on Hamilton's phrase and uses it as the title of his book, The Death of Satan. Delbanco traces the history of the concept of evil in America, and shows how it has all but disappeared in our day. He writes, “In this world emptied of metaphysical meaning...our insurance policies may still include clauses covering (or more likely, exempting) ‘acts of God’ as well as storm, fire, flood, and the like; but the fact is that such events are regarded by most people as inscrutable misfortunes.” He continues, “there seems to be growing agreement that there was once such a concept as sin – broad and capacious but still meaningful – and that it has faded.”

Delbanco concludes his study with these words: “My driving motive in writing...has been the conviction that if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.”

 Dismissing the God of the Bible because of the problem of evil doesn't do away with evil, it leaves us without a sure remedy for it. Denying or downplaying the reality of evil (in our own souls and all that springs from it) doesn't do away with it either. As Delbanco points out, being deluded into denying evil shows that you are being dominated by it.

 Over the next few weeks, I'd like think through the reality of and remedy for evil. More to follow.

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